Tuesday, April 12, 2016

El Camino de Santiago, Part IV

The Meseta

By Valeria Idakieva

[Part III, “Legends and reality,” was published on February 3.]

After the sweltering heat of the previous day, luckily a storm during the night lowered the temperature and cleared the air. So my first day on the Meseta – wide-open spaces with very little shade – started on a more cheerful note in the fresh air.
    Apart from me, the shepherd, and his sheep, there was not a single soul in the vast space. Soon I was absorbed in my thoughts about eternity, feeling like a tiny spot between the enormous sky above my head and the infinite stretch of land under my feet.
    That evening, spent around the table in a hospitable little albergue in the company of other pilgrims, most of which were again Italian, was a welcome comfort after a long day in the wide-open plain.
    The next morning offered me the same landscape. The vast space stretching out in front of me was urging me to rush into the plain without any delay. And I did it.

There are few places on the Meseta where you can stop to have a rest or visit something interesting. In a few hours I reached one of them – the 14th century monastery and hospital of San Anton, which are now mostly ruins.
    The route passes under a Gothic double arch where there is still an alcove where bread was once left for passing pilgrims after the monastery had closed for the night. The alcove is used today by pilgrims to leave messages.
    Later in the afternoon I reached San Nicolas, an albergue located just before a bridge, built by Alfonso VI in the 11th century to aid pilgrims. A friendly volunteer invited me to enter the chapel next to the albergue, and we started talking.
    “You come from Bulgaria! Wow, that’s fantastic.”
    “Bulgaria is over there; it is not on the North Pole.”
    “Yes, a lady from Australia was here yesterday.”
    “Now, that’s wow,” I answered and continued through the Meseta.
    After a while I heard a voice behind me, “Excuse me, are these gloves yours?”
    “No, they aren’t. I haven’t brought any gloves.”
    That is how I met Bill from the United States. He was hiking in the Pyrenees, but had to come down because of a phone call that his father was in hospital, and in the mountains you don’t have signal coverage all the time. When he talked to his father and learned that he was better, he decided to walk on the Camino till the end of the month, when he had to join another group in Portugal.
    Immersed in talking, we reached the village of Fromista later in the afternoon, where we were going to stay for the night. After a substantial dinner, we agreed to walk together until it was time for him to leave for Portugal.
    I had planned approximately 35 km a day along the Meseta, since it was flat and easy for walking. The agenda today offered us a choice of two routes – a road route and a river route. The first one was a path that followed the road, near noisy vehicles and with very little shade. Being a gentleman, Bill left the choice to me and I did not hesitate at all. “River route, we are coming!”
    After about an hour we reached the Hermitage of Our Lady of the river.

    At this point we could choose again whether to join the road route or continue by the river. Bill let me choose again and I chose the river route again. After some time the signs vanished, the path was getting narrower and narrower, and soon we had to make our way through tall grass and bushes. When we finally got out of the “jungle,” we could see that the river was not flowing in the direction that we had to follow. We could also see a village not far from us. It was unlikely to be the place that we had headed for, but still it was a village, not a “jungle.”
    To acquire information and put an end to this adventure, we almost ran to the village, but its streets were empty. It was lunch time, the sun was high in the sky, and people – apart from the pilgrims – were not that crazy to stay outside. We were sweating under the sun, wondering what to do, when a man appeared in the street. We rushed to our savior, who of course did want to save us, but he did not speak English and we did not speak Spanish. After a few unsuccessful attempts to understand each other, I took out the guidebook and showed him the name of the town we had to reach, and using the language of fingers, hands, and arms we finally understood that we had to follow the road in the direction he pointed for 4 kilometers. Although it was only 4 km, walking along with roaring trucks and cars was not a nice experience and I sighed a breath of relief when we reached the town of Carrion de los Condes.

After a deserved lunch and some rest, we continued through the Meseta. Part of the following 16km stretch was along an old Roman Road, the Via Traiana, which linked Astorga to Bordeaux. It was amazing to walk where Caesar had once walked, but under the sweltering sun, with no shade, I could not help reproaching him for not planting some trees along with the road he built.
    During the grueling day, Bill had gotten a sore toe, but there is always a risk when you let Valeria make the choice. Or, as he jokingly said, I needed to walk 40 km and that is why we added the additional four.
    There was not a trace of a cloud in the August sky – it was going to be another hot day. At least the landscape was different.

    Enjoying the sunflower fields, we entered the town of Sahagun at about lunch time. It is believed to be the middle of the Camino.

The Meseta cannot boast of many legends. But the following one, borrowed from my guidebook again, deserves sharing. On the way out of Sahagun you cross the Puente de Canto, which was first built in 1085 to aid pilgrims.
    You emerge on the other side at the “Field of Charlemagne’s Lances,” which is now a grove of poplar trees and the site of the following legend: Charlemagne was chasing Aigolando, the Saracen caliph, with the intention of liberating the way for pilgrims to Santiago. Soldiers were preparing for battle the following day and some left their weapons thrust into the ground upright ready for the fight. At daybreak the soldiers who were to receive the honour of martyrdom found their lances covered in bark with branches growing from them. This miracle was attributed to God, so they cut the lances down and from their roots grew a great wood of plane trees. We have seen Charlemagne associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago before, which is interesting, as Charlemagne died in 814, one hundred years before St. James’s remains were found in the Field of Stars.

We spent the night in a parochial albergue where all the pilgrims say an evening prayer together, share their experiences from the Camino, and have a communal dinner. Whether you are religious or not, sometimes it is good to feel part of something bigger than you that unites people. After all, that was what the Camino was created for.
    The next morning we could see mountains on the horizon.

    This was a sure sign that the Meseta was soon going to be over and we were approaching the city of Leon. I was looking forward to sightseeing in Leon and had planned almost a whole day for enjoying the city. Since I was usually among the last people to get up, I could not have coffee at the place where we spent the night, so we hurried to the first village where I could have one. Bill was not very happy with the pace, but he had to put up with me.
    At the café we met a Spanish pilgrim whom I had met a few times before. He had previously tried to talk to me in Spanish, but the only thing I could do was smile and shrug my shoulders since I could not speak Spanish and he could not speak English or Bulgarian. Here he was again, trying to tell me something that I did not understand, and again I shrugged my shoulders to show that I did not understand.
    The girl behind the bar joined the scene in English, “He said that you were late again.”
    “Oh,” I said, “I do not like getting up early, but I usually catch up with the early birds on the road.” And I ordered an espresso.
    “Are you Italian?” the girl asked me, probably because I ordered an espresso and most people had a large cup of coffee with some milk.
    “I know that maybe in my previous life I was Spanish, or because of my black hair and dark eyes most people here think I am Spanish or Italian, but actually I am Bulgarian.”
    “Let us talk in Bulgarian, then,” said the girl in Bulgarian.
    For a moment I was too stunned to say anything. Then we had the usual talk of two people meeting each other for the first time and after that I heard one of the really beautiful stories that pilgrims call the miracles of the Camino.
    The girl had been doing the Camino two years earlier and nearly at the end of the adventure she met a Spanish boy and they fell in love. She went back to Bulgaria and after a few months returned to Spain to start her new life with her Spanish love. Now they run this café along the Camino.

The last day on the Meseta offered us a flat and easy walking route, but the hot sun was really exhausting. When we reached the village where we had chosen to spend the night, we were unpleasantly surprised by the sight of the closed albergue. Tables and chairs sat in front of the building and we knocked on the locked door and shouted, but it was in vain. Perhaps they were having their fiesta. Anyway, we were too tired and hot to wait for its end, so we continued not knowing where our next stop would be. Maybe in Leon – it was only 15 km away. However, after half an hour we saw another, small albergue near the road and decided to stay there. Later we had dinner with strange people like us – a Dutchman who was doing the Camino for the third time – because you should do the good things three times – and an Estonian couple who started their journey from Estonia in March, crossed Germany, France, and Spain, and were heading for Portugal. It was an interesting end of the day.
    Every time we talked about next day’s plans with other pilgrims, I found myself repeating that I did not like getting up very early and walking in the dark. That morning I heard an alarm clock and somebody getting up. It was 6:30, so I got up and started getting ready. Because Bill could always get ready faster than I could, I didn’t wake him up for 15 minutes.
    When we emerged from the building it was as dark as if it were midnight. For a few minutes we stood in bewilderment, before I remembered that after my watch had stopped working I began consulting my phone for the time, but my phone was still set for Bulgarian time, so I had got up at 5:30 Spanish time. Anyway, we were not going to go back to wait for the sunrise.
    It was only 12 km to Leon, so at 9:00 o’clock we left our backpacks in an albergue there and went to see the sights of this charming city, starting with its impressive cathedral, unique with its stained glass windows.

    I guess a day is not enough to see all the treasures that Leon holds, but it was a special day, worth spending even if you see only the magnificent San Marcos Monastery.
    Or walk along the city’s marvelous squares.

Copyright © 2016 by Valeria Idakieva